What to do if you catch norovirus – the winter vomiting bug

Medical Director, UK Insurance at Bupa UK
30 October 2017

Norovirus, also known as the winter vomiting bug, is the most common stomach bug in the UK. It’s also highly contagious. It made the headlines back in August when the Botswanan athlete Isaac Makwala was quarantined after catching norovirus during the World Athletics Championships. In recent weeks you may have seen news reports about outbreaks in the UK. These have happened in Nottingham and Dudley, and a suspected outbreak in Blackpool.

As the winter months draw in and the bug becomes much more widespread, it’s important to be alert to the norovirus symptoms. So here I look at who can get it, how you get it, and what to do if you’re unlucky enough to catch the bug.

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Who can get norovirus?

Unfortunately, no matter your age or how healthy you are, anyone can get norovirus. Someone who catches it will be immune for a short while afterwards, but this won’t last. So there’s even a chance you might be unlucky enough to get it more than once in your life.

For most people, having norovirus is unpleasant but generally mild. They’ll usually make a full recovery in one to two days. However, for vulnerable people – babies, older people and those with existing health problems – it can be more serious. In fact, around 3,000 people a year are admitted to hospital with norovirus in England.

Although it’s called the ‘winter’ vomiting bug, you can get it at any time of the year. However, it’s much more common during the colder winter months (November to April).

How could I catch norovirus?

Norovirus is highly contagious, so you can catch it and pass it on to others very easily. It can spread very quickly in closed environments, such as hospitals, schools and care homes. You can become infected by accidentally getting particles of the virus in your mouth and ingesting it. These particles are from faeces or vomit from infected people. This can happen via contaminated food and water, or by touching unclean surfaces, such as door handles and cutlery.

What are norovirus symptoms?

Norovirus causes gastroenteritis. Norovirus symptoms tend to come on suddenly: nausea, projectile vomiting and watery diarrhoea. Tummy cramps are also common and in some cases it can cause fever.

How long does norovirus last?

Though it’s very unpleasant, the good news is that the bug is short-lived and should be out of your system within one to two days.

If you think you’ve caught norovirus, it’s important not to visit hospitals, your GP surgery, friends, or relatives in care homes or other public spaces. This is because you could easily spread the infection to other people, and potentially to people who already have poor health. However, if your symptoms carry on for more than three or four days, or you already have a serious illness, then phone your GP. They’ll be able to give you advice about what to do and assess if you need further examination.

Is there a treatment for norovirus?

There’s no specific medicine to treat norovirus and antibiotics won’t work because it’s a viral infection, not a bacterial one. The best thing you can do is to manage the norovirus symptoms, and to stay hydrated, replacing the fluid you’re losing through vomiting and diarrhoea.

What should I do if I catch norovirus?

If you catch norovirus, here are some top tips on looking after yourself and getting on the road to recovery.

  • Don’t spread it. Norovirus is highly contagious so you don’t want to risk passing it on to others, especially vulnerable people. Don’t visit your GP surgery, hospital, friends, or relatives in care homes.
  • Stay at home. There’s no medicine to treat norovuris, so for most people there will be little the GP can do. It usually only lasts a couple of days, so it’s best to stay in the comfort of your own home, ride it out and rest. This will also reduce the risk of spreading it to others.
  • Drink enough fluids. When you have norovirus symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhoea, you need to replace the fluids you’re losing in order to prevent dehydration. The best thing you can do is to drink water regularly, or you can buy rehydration solutions over the counter from your pharmacy. This is a powder that is made up into a solution by adding water. It contains the right balance of sugars and salts for your body to encourage rehydration. Ask someone to pick these up for you to help prevent spreading the virus.
  • Over-the-counter medicines can be useful. To help reduce or relieve norovirus symptoms, such as fever or stomach aches and pains, over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol may help.
  • Wash your hands. Thoroughly washing your hands, especially after going to the toilet or before preparing food, is essential to prevent spreading the illness to others. Don’t rely on alcohol gels (hand sanitisers), as these do not kill norovirus – always wash your hands with warm water and soap when you can.
  • Disinfect surfaces. Thoroughly clean hard surfaces, such as door handles, taps and kitchen surfaces, with detergents and disinfectant. This will reduce the risk of others coming into contact with the virus. Don’t prepare food for other people until you’re fully recovered – at least 48 hours after your symptoms have gone away.
  • If you become severely dehydrated, you may need hospital treatment with fluids given through a vein in your arm (an intravenous drip). If you think you or someone you’re caring for is severely dehydrated, call your GP surgery or NHS 111.




Here at Bupa we understand how important your family is. So with our family health insurance you can rest assured knowing that eligible treatment and support is available to you and your loved ones when you need it.

Dr Luke James
Medical Director, UK Insurance at Bupa UK

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